Elfrid Payton’s massive summer made possible by a Chris Paul camp snub

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Elfrid Payton had a really, really good sophomore season, one that saw him average 15.9 points, 5.6 boards, 5.5 assists and 2.4 steals while playing more than 35 minutes a night.

Those are massive numbers, regardless of what level of basketball you play.

The problem, however, was that Payton played for Louisiana, a team that finished last season buried in eighth place in the Sun Belt with a forgettable 13-20 record. Payton was a first team all-Sun Belt selection and the guy that every coach game-planned around if they had UL on their schedule, but his notoriety didn’t make it much further than a scouting report for Arkansas State or South Alabama.

Such is life at the mid-major level, which is precisely why his head coach, Bob Marlin, spent all spring trying to get Payton into Chris Paul’s point guard camp. An invitation-only event stocked with some of the best high school and collegiate point guards from across the country, it would be the perfect place for a 6-foot-3 combo-guard to A) learn from some of the best skills instructors, including CP3 himself, and B) get some exposure, to be more than just a name known in Florida Atlantic’s locker room.

“We fought it pretty hard for about a month,” Marlin told NBCSports.com, but eventually, word came back that Payton would not be getting that invitation. “It was disappointing.”

And it ended up being the best thing that ever happened to him.

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Elfrid Payton is an opportunist.

Give him an inch, and he’s taking a yard. Let him get a foot in the door, and he’s busting through like Adrian Peterson catching a glimpse of the goal line.

As a 16 year old high school senior, Payton was 6-foot-1 and 160 pounds, stuck playing second fiddle on a good John Ehret (LA) HS team that featured the more highly-regarded O.C. Tart. Payton was a Division I prospect, but he was the guy whose high school coach had to make calls on his behalf. That changed midway through the season, as Payton was given the reins to the team when Tart got himself suspended.

With a chance to show what he was capable of, Payton led Ehret to Louisiana’s state tournament semifinals, which just so happened to be played at UL’s Cajundome. At that point, Marlin had been recruiting Payton for about a month, Tulsa and New Mexico State were poking around, and Texas A&M had inquired about Payton attending prep school. A couple of weeks later, after visiting Payton at his high school, Marlin hosted Payton and his family on campus for an unofficial visit. Payton committed that day. “We just thought UL was the right place,” he told NBCSports.com. “It was close to home, my parents could come see my games, it was the right fit, and I could come in immediately and play, which was the biggest thing.”

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After a promising freshman season, Payton exploded as a sophomore, bolstered by a late growth spurt and an extra 20 pounds of muscle. It wasn’t enough to earn an invite to the Chris Paul camp, but Payton caught another break.

Sports Reach is a ministry that travels the world using athletics as a platform to share the Gospel. Based in Louisville, KY, it would only make sense that one of their main efforts involved basketball, and they’ve had some pretty prominent alumni. Jordy Hulls traveled with them in the summer of 2011. Peyton Siva, Victor Oladipo and Aaron White were on the team in 2012. This summer, Sports Reach had a point guard drop out of their two week trip to China, and when Marlin got word, he and Payton decided that it was probably his best chance at making a name for himself.

It wasn’t.

Unless you knew someone on that trip, you didn’t know about that trip.

But it forced Payton to get a passport, and that may have changed the course of his basketball career.

While Payton was on the trip, Marlin had a realization: Payton’s young for his age, as he turned 19 years old this February. That would make him eligible for the USA’s U-19 team, which is typically made up of high school seniors and college freshmen. Payton was due home in a couple of days, and the U-19 trials were due to start in about two weeks, but Marlin figured it was worth a shot to give the U-19 head coach, his old friend Billy Donovan, a call to make a pitch for Payton to get an invite to training camp.

“I know the trials have been set and it’s the last minute and I apologize, but I’ve got a young man that I think can help the team and bring some more experience to the group,” Marlin told Donovan. He referenced the 20 points and seven steals Payton had against Michigan State and the 17.5 points, 8.5 assists and 7.0 boards he had in two games against Richard Pitino’s FIU team. He told Donovan to ask around about this kid.

Donovan, Marlin said, told him that wasn’t necessary. He trusted his old friend’s opinion, and that a spot had opened up because Tyus Jones dropped out of the trials. Marlin would have to save the hard-sell for Sean Ford of USA Basketball, however. It was his decision to make.

When Marlin finally heard from Ford, the Men’s National Team Director, Ford only had two questions:

“Is Elfrid 19 years old?”

Yes. He turned 19 in February.

“Does he have a passport?”

Well, he does now.

From there, the story tells itself.

Payton was sensational during the training camp, beating out the likes of Ryan Arcidiacono, Kris Dunn, Damyeon Dotson, Javan Felix and Rodney Purvis for a spot on the 12 man roster. He then beat out Nigel Williams-Goss, James Robinson, Michael Frazier and Justise Winslow for a spot in Team USA’s starting lineup, where he was featured alongside future lottery picks Marcus Smart and Rasheed Sulaimon.

“I thought if given the opportunity to show it, I can play with those guys,” Payton said. “Once I got the chance I was able to seize the opportunity.”

Payton earning a spot on the team turned him into a major story in the college hoops world in the slow month of June; Ragin’ Cajun point guards don’t often don the red, white and blue. But it was his on the court that really got people talking. Payton is as athletic slasher that is a nightmare to keep out of the paint and a misery to try to handle the ball against. He’s still learning some of the intricacies of being a point guard — how to run a team, how to read the pick-and-roll, when to pick his spots — but the talent and the effort level is there.

While Payton was putting up nine points, six assists and five steals in the U-19 final against Serbia, Marlin was fielding calls from NBA front office types asking how the heck this kid ended up at UL. Given the success of mid-major combo-guards in recent years — Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum — it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the NBA has started inquiring.

All Payton needed was the exposure.

And if he had gotten that invite from the Chris Paul camp in the spring, he wouldn’t have been on that trip to China. If he didn’t take that trip to China, he wouldn’t have had a passport when USA Basketball extended him an invite.

“Opportunities don’t come around a lot,” Payton said. “So when they do, it’s important that you make the most of them.”

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Marlin got the news while Payton was in Prague representing his country.

“We get the call, finally, and they ask him to come to Chris Paul camp,” Marlin said. “I told the guy, we waited and we waited and we didn’t hear anything back. I said, ‘we tried’, and he said, ‘well, he’s in now.'”

It wasn’t quite that simple, though. The Chris Paul camp happened to coincide with UL’s trip to Spain this August. Payton would have a decision to make: go on an exhibition tour with his team, or spend three days in Winston-Salem at the camp he had worked so hard to get into five months ago.

He declined the invitation.

“Chris Paul isn’t going anywhere,” Payton said. “I felt like I needed to spend some time with my teammates and get better with my team. The most important goal is to win a conference championship and to make a run in March, and I just wanted to be with my team at that time.”

“Little things and reasons that went into the decision that I didn’t get in [initially] did kind of put a chip on my shoulder, but everything happens for a reason. It was alright. I was able to experience the U-19. The whole thing about the Chris Paul camp was getting exposure, and the U-19s did that for me.”

Mississippi State losing two to transfer

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Mississippi State will lose two players to transfer as freshmen Mario Kegler and Eli Wright are leaving the program.

Both Kegler and Wright were four-star prospects coming out of high school as they were apart of a six-man recruiting class that is supposed to be a major foundation for Ben Howland’s future with the Bulldogs.

The 6-foot-7 Kegler was Mississippi State’s third-leading scorer last season as he averaged 9.7 points and 5.5 rebounds per game. Kegler should command some quality schools on the transfer market, especially since he’ll still have three more years of eligibility after sitting out next season due to NCAA transfer regulations. Kegler’s loss is also notable for Mississippi State because it is the second consecutive offseason that Howland lost a top-100, in-state product to transfer after only one season after Malik Newman left for Kansas.

Wright, a 6-foot-4 guard, was never able to find consistent minutes as he was already behind underclass perimeter options like Quinndary Weatherspoon, Lamar Peters and Tyson Carter last season. With Nick Weatherspoon, Quinndary’s four-star brother, also joining the Bulldogs next season, the writing was likely on the wall that Wright wasn’t going to earn significant playing time.

 

N.C. State lands second transfer of day with Utah’s Devon Daniels

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A big recruiting day for N.C. State continued on Saturday afternoon as Utah transfer and guard Devon Daniels pledged to the Wolfpack.

Earlier in the day, N.C. State and new head coach Kevin Keatts landed another quality transfer in UNC Wilmington guard C.J. Bryce.

The 6-foot-5 Daniels just finished his freshman season with the Utes in which he put up 9.9 points 4.6 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game while shooting 57 percent from the field and 40 percent from three-point range. Just like Bryce, Daniels will have to sit out the 2017-18 season due to NCAA transfer regulations before he has three more seasons of eligibility.

N.C. State now has two potential starters on the perimeter for the 2018-19 season with the addition of Bryce and Daniels as it will be interesting to see what kind of talent the Wolfpack can get around them.

 

UNC Wilmington transfer C.J. Bryce follows Kevin Keatts to N.C. State

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N.C. State landed an impact transfer on Saturday as UNC Wilmington guard C.J. Bryce will be following former head coach Kevin Keatts to the Wolfpack, a source confirmed to NBCSports.com

The 6-foot-5 Bryce averaged 17.4 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game last season as he helped the Seahawks to an NCAA tournament appearance. Bryce will have to sit out the 2017-18 season due to NCAA transfer regulations, but he’ll have two seasons of eligibility remaining after sitting out one season.

With N.C. State getting center Omer Yurtseven back for next season, and with the addition of Bryce, it means that Keatts has retained, or added, some talented players for the next few seasons. The Wolfpack still have to fill a lot of roster spots from last season’s team, but Keatts seems to be having a really good week.

Seven identified after threats made against referee John Higgins following Kentucky Elite Eight loss

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College basketball referee John Higgins received threats to his home and business in late March after some controversial calls in North Carolina’s win over Kentucky in the 2017 NCAA Tournament.

Seven people have now been identified for making threats against Higgins, according to an Associated Press report. The FBI’s Omaha, Nebraska field office said that information on the seven people will be referred to authorities in their jurisdictions.

An investigation over the last few months helped find the culprits, as the Omaha-based Higgins received emails, phone calls and voicemails to his personal home and roofing company following Kentucky’s NCAA Tournament departure. Wildcat head coach John Calipari might have ignited some of the anger in Kentucky fans by criticizing the officiating following the North Carolina loss.

“Based on the investigation’s findings, our office has determined that no local charges will be filed and that pursuit of any criminal charges would be best served by deferring to authorities in the appropriate jurisdictions,” Sarpy County Attorney Lee Polikov said in a statement to The Associated Press. “The length of the investigation was drawn out due in part to the large volume of potential evidence requiring analysis, and the multi-jurisdictional issues arising from the multiple states in which the communications originated.”

Polikov also said that at least two media outlets were exposing and promoting Higgins’ contact information.

“This information has been referred to the Federal Communications Commission for further investigation of the potential violations related to applicable federal communications regulations,” Polikov said.

Higgins received about 3,000 phone calls at his office in the two days following the game. Sheriff’s investigator Matt Barrall told the AP that an estimated 75 percent of the calls were from Kentucky area codes.

The roofing business that Higgins owns was also flooded with bad online reviews and negative star ratings, causing his Google rating to fall while also forcing Higgins to take down the Facebook page for his business.

Beilein still upbeat after Michigan loses another to NBA

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) β€” For a major program, Michigan is a somewhat unlikely candidate for this kind of NBA-induced attrition.

The Wolverines have fielded some very good teams under John Beilein, but they haven’t been relying on prospects expected to jump to the pros as soon as they can.

“We’re not depending all our success on one-and-dones,” Beilein said. “Given that, our numbers right now are extraordinary.”

Beilein was referring to the number of players Michigan has sent to the NBA, particularly as early entrees. The Wolverines lost D.J. Wilson to the draft this offseason with two years of eligibility remaining, and now they’ll go through the familiar process of trying to replace a key player who turned pro.

The most significant early exodus occurred in 2013 and 2014, when Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr., Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary all went pro before their eligibility was up. Michigan won a lot of games with those players, reaching the Final Four and Elite Eight those two years, but their development made them attractive to NBA teams and shortened their college careers.

Wilson’s rise followed a similar pattern. He averaged only 2.7 points per game in 2015-16, and then increased to 11.0 this past season and became Michigan’s leading rebounder. His efforts helped Michigan win the Big Ten Tournament and reach the Sweet 16, and now he’s off to the NBA draft. The entire sequence of events would have seemed highly improbable a year ago.

The Wolverines won’t receive much sympathy from their Big Ten opponents, especially since Michigan will still have big man Moe Wagner, who tested the NBA waters but ultimately decided to stay in school. The 6-foot-11 Wagner averaged 12.1 points last season and shot 39.5 percent from 3-point range, showing huge improvement in much the same way Wilson did.

After losing senior point guard Derrick Walton, it will be interesting to see how Michigan’s offense operates if Wagner becomes even more of a focal point. When Beilein was at West Virginia, the Mountaineers achieved success behind center Kevin Pittsnogle, whose skill set and 3-point shooting ability was at least somewhat similar to Wagner’s.

“We’re not going to put him in that category yet,” Beilein said. “Let’s just say, having a big man who can shoot the ball like that changes a lot of things.”

Michigan was also able to add a new point guard recently in Jaaron Simmons, a graduate transfer from Ohio. Simmons is eligible immediately in 2017-18 and will move up from the Mid-American Conference to the Big Ten.

“A lot of the mid-majors are having this happen to them, and I don’t like it at all, but the fact is if Jaaron doesn’t come here, he ends up probably somewhere else in the Big Ten,” Beilein said. “He’s just fundamentally so sound. He’ll be here this summer. Just as a person, I just wanted to coach the kid after spending an hour with him β€” just the leadership, the desire to win.”

Simmons could help the Wolverines withstand the loss of Walton, and Beilein indicated he could serve as a bit of a mentor to players like point guard Xavier Simpson, who is entering his sophomore season.

“We went all-in with (Simmons), knowing we had that scholarship,” Beilein said. “We felt that was a huge need for us, is to just have a little bit more experience in the backcourt next year.”

Follow Noah Trister on Twitter @noahtrister